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Treatment Action Group Celebrates New Guidance on the Right to Science by Global Human Rights Body

Contact: Mike Frick, TAG TB Project Co-Director

New York, April 14, 2020—Treatment Action Group (TAG) celebrates publication of the General Comment on “the human right of everyone to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” (the right to science), and calls the attention of grassroots activists and global civil society working on health to this landmark document. This General Comment No. 25, published by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), provides the first authoritative United Nations legal interpretation of the entitlements and obligations created by the right to science.

The publication of General Comment No. 25 comes not a moment too soon: the COVID-19 pandemic has confronted societies across the globe with the incontrovertible connections between human rights, science, and health. The General Comment tasks all governments with incorporating into their public health and scientific responses to COVID-19 principles such as participation, non-discrimination, transparency, equity, and solidarity.

“CESCR has offered a powerful—and at points progressive—vision of science as a human right when we need it most,” said Mike Frick, TAG tuberculosis project co-director. “The General Comment offers fertile ground on which activists can build campaigns and cultivate new strategies to increase government funding for research, secure equitable access to essential medicines, and fight the privatization of knowledge by reclaiming science as a public good.”

TAG provided feedback to CESCR on a public draft of the General Comment; we are gratified to see that CESCR took on many of our comments. “We have long argued that the right to science obligates governments to not only support neglected disease research through targeted financing, but just as importantly, to make new discoveries such as safer, more effective preventive, diagnostic, and treatment tools broadly available. The General Comment drives home our argument that public funding of science should result in public goods,” said TAG health and human rights consultant, Gisa Dang.

Many aspects of CESCR’s interpretation of the right to science support advocacy by TAG and other groups for equitable innovation, notably:

  • Participation: CESCR is clear that the right to science “encompasses not only a right to receive the benefits of the applications of scientific progress but also a right to participate in scientific progress.” Importantly, CESCR does not endorse a rigid distinction between scientists and the general public. This stance strengthens the rich tradition of community engagement in global health research.
  • Access: Importantly, access not only encompasses knowledge and information, but also the material results of scientific progress such as medicines and vaccines and the means, methods, and materials of scientific discovery. “State parties have a duty to make available and accessible to all persons, without discrimination, especially to the most vulnerable, all the best available applications of scientific progress necessary to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.”
  • Non-discrimination: States must take special steps to ensure vulnerable and marginalized groups enjoy scientific progress and its benefits. “Scientific progress and its applications should be, as far as possible, accessible and affordable to persons in specific need of certain goods or services. Public institutions in different sectors should be provided with a clear mandate to actively overcome exclusion from such progress and applications, especially in the health sectors and education.”

General Comment No. 25 does not shy away from addressing contentious issues such as the role of intellectual property (IP) in innovation. “CESCR recognizes that IP is not the only incentive for advancing science, and offers alternatives that would separate financial remuneration from future sales,” commented Bryn Gay, TAG’s HCV project director. “This is monumental guidance we can use in our advocacy to call upon governments to consider alternative R&D incentives, implement legal IP flexibilities, and establish a voluntary global pool of rights in data, knowledge, medicines, diagnostics, and vaccines related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

TAG will continue to provide critical analysis on the General Comment and on how the right to science can advance advocacy for an innovation system designed to meet human need. Next month, a special issue of TAGline dedicated to the right to science will explore the right in relation to advocacy to end tuberculosis, HIV, and hepatitis C virus.

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